When we talk to school students about their aspirations, what do we mean?

How often does that question quickly turn into a lecture, usually given by someone whose own aspirations were forged in very different circumstances, twenty or more years ago? It is entirely understandable that most of us tend to judge the answer to the question ‘What are your aspirations?’ by our own standards.

After all, what else have we got to judge by?

It can be very difficult to put aside one’s own experiences and listen with a truly open mind to the views of someone much younger. Not least on a subject which is so rooted in the realities of what is possible, rather than in what can sometimes sound like youthful fantasies.

Listen, don’t judge

Our own experience of delivering financial life skills education has taught us that in order to engage students, we need to connect with them and their real lives. When we start a day of Keep the Cash , one of the first things we ask students is what is it that they want to do with their lives: what are their aspirations?

We never add anything to the question. Nor do we try and influence students to answer in any particular way. We stress that there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer to the question and that all we want to do is to listen to what they have to say.

They are then free to say whatever they like, and the results are always fascinating. It can take a minute or two for them to get going, mainly because such an open question about themselves requires a degree of personal reflection and awareness that they may not be used to. However, once they can sense that we are serious in what we are asking and we have their trust, they start to engage with us very enthusiastically.

Of course, some of the answers are very much off the wall but, when they are, we never make light of them. By and large, we get to hear what each group of students hope their lives can bring them. It is always a stimulating conversation and often a positively enlightening insight into their lives.

Their aspirations and the four key relationships

In part, that aspirational conversation develops because a day of Keep the Cash is all about how students will build independent adult lives, and how they need to generate income in order to do that. The important thing to get over to each student is that it is by employment that we are able to bring our aspirations to life.

Employment is one of the four life-long relationships the students will experience. We want to make sure that they see it as an opportunity to realise their aspirations and, therefore, as something that is of intrinsic value to them. Once they look at employment as a way of furthering their aspirations, they start to think about education and training in a different way.

For us, that means we can then begin to discuss the idea of a career, and the notion of ‘self-investment’. They start to understand that, no matter what they want to do with their lives, they will have to invest in achieving their goals, and that investment has to come from them.

Our objective is to make personal to each student something that is often put to them in ways which are impersonal and remote. Something which often seems a long way removed from their own dreams and desires.

Understanding the rules of our economic system

But we have one other important job to do when we talk to students about aspiration: we have to explain to them that whatever it is they want to do with their lives, they will have to do so within certain parameters that apply universally.

Whatever it is they want to do, wherever they want to go, they will have to be able to fund their aspirations. Their decisions will be governed by a set of economic rules that will apply throughout their lives.

They cannot avoid the rules of credit and interest. They will have to learn how to understand and manage their cash flow. Debt is something they will take on board at some point in their lives, and we need to make sure they know how to do so.

Living a sustainable, solvent, independent life covers most of the aspirations we hear about in schools up and down the country. If we can marry taking delight in hearing about what a student hopes to achieve, and equipping that student with a set of practical skills that will be of life-long utility to them on their journey, we will have done a good job.